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Utah Senate unanimously passes state religious freedom bill

Utah stands poised to join the ranks of states enacting their own Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, with a bill swiftly moving through the Utah Senate.

SB150, championed by Sen. Todd Weiler of Woods Cross, gained unanimous approval from the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee in a 5-0 vote and a unanimous vote in the full Senate.

Equality Utah initially had concerns that the bill would “be used to override protections against discrimination for LGBTQ Utahns in housing and employment, and the ban on conversion therapy.”

“These are two places in Utah code where Equality Utah worked with stakeholders and the Utah Legislature to carefully balance religious liberty with protections for the LGBTQ community,” the group said in a statement. “We are grateful the sponsor, Senator Weiler, heard our concerns and incorporated language in the bill to make clear that the rights conferred in these previously enacted bills are preserved and protected.”

The bill now includes “Utah has enacted a number of laws that balance religious freedom with other important civil rights … [and] this part complements, rather than disrupts [those laws.]”

The new bill also removed language on abortion or “a refusal to provide emergency medical
services” based on religious beliefs.

“With the inclusion of this new language, the bill passed out of the Senate unanimously. It will next move to the House for consideration,” Equality Utah wrote.

Inspired by similar legislation recently enacted in West Virginia, SB150 aims to bolster protections for religious freedom by allowing individuals to challenge government regulations deemed to infringe upon their constitutional rights. Weiler emphasized the bill’s alignment with existing federal statutes and its role as a preemptive measure in the event of any future alterations to RFRA at the national level.

The passage of RFRA legislation in West Virginia, despite objections from Democrats who raised concerns about potential discrimination against LGBTQ+ communities, has emboldened proponents of religious freedom initiatives in Utah. Weiler contends that SB150 offers necessary safeguards against governmental overreach, asserting that it is rooted in religious tolerance and constitutional preservation principles.

Nevertheless, the bill has ignited contentious debates regarding its potential ramifications. Advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign caution that RFRA laws, while intended to safeguard religious liberty, have been misinterpreted to justify discrimination. They advocate for measures like the proposed Do No Harm Act, which seeks to clarify RFRA’s scope and prevent its misuse to inflict harm on marginalized groups.

The national Religious Freedom Restoration Act was signed into law in 1993 by former President Bill Clinton. It was a bipartisan collaboration that involved Muslims, evangelicals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the ACLU, among other groups.

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